What causes so many spiritual teachers to abuse their pupils — and how to transcend the problem with Digital-Age disruption
The head of the largest Tibetan Buddhist community groomed students to have sex and knowingly spread AIDS to others. His master, the legendary teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, knew about this—and did nothing. Soygal Rinpoche, who leads a network of 100 Buddhist retreat centers, punched a nun in the stomach for having his step up to his throne in the wrong place, has “ ‘left monks, nuns, and lay people… with bloody injuries and permanent scars”, and, where that not enough, has been accused of multiple acts of sexual assault.
Luminaries of the New Age scene like Marc Gafni and Andrew Cohen have been accused of all kinds of mental, physical, and financial abuse. Over 200 former students of Cohen’s signed an online petition to stop him teaching again even after he took many years off to reflect; and then apologized for his errors publicly. They didn’t believe that he really owned is own doo doo. Even old-timer Osho, was apparently addicted to valium, allowed heavily-armed acolytes to prowl the retreat center, and may have sanctioned the poisoning of hundreds of people in a restaurant.
In the last 24 months, the head of the wildly successful New Tantra organization was recently outed as a serial abuser of pretty much every kind. A big guru in Thailand has been forced to close down his center after many claims of assault and rape. The leaders of a hip personal development organization in New York have been indicted for sex trafficking.
Tragically the list can go on and on.
As someone who spends a great deal of his time teaching profound wisdom about our true nature— and sharing transformational tools to help people heal and live a life of service — with fragile and vulnerable people (because we all are fragile and vulnerable), these revelations hit me hard. In fact, after watching the Netflix documentary, Wild Wild Country, it took me a week of heavy-duty inner work to process my feelings of sadness and, in truth, horror at my own career “choice”. Was this purpose pathway walkable without sinking into abuses of power over students?
I am clear that most wisdom teachers come to the work because of their own pain and suffering. It’s what happened to the historical Buddha. Most of my fellow teachers will happily say this healing process was part of their journey. I can definitely say that I found the truth and experience of enlightenment to be the only thing big enough to help me handle the pain of my abused, bullied, and neurotic (former-ish) self. Most, if not all teachers, have wounds within. When one realizes that the process of switching on /waking up changes everything, and one groks that until others get this they will always suffer, a lifelong commitment to spreading this realization seems the only sensible choice. I understand the fervent, all-encompassing evangelism for sharing spiritual enlightenment with the entire world.
However, as I detail in my books, any purposeful mission can always be hijacked by what I call the Protector within, and its drive to survive life through control and defence. The Protector is not wrong or bad; far from it. It has a sacred and evolutionarily elemental job to keep us alive. But to do this, it uses old patterns — feelings, beliefs, and habits that once worked to keep us safe but are now probably maladapted— to do its job. This is where most self-sabotage and almost “evil” behavior stems: the repetition of defensive moves to control the crazy and protect us when they are not a fit for the moment.
Anyone who has established protective patterns to get by life that include say: being rude or mean-spirited; being desirous of being sexually-desired; becoming over-confident when anxious to the point of arrogance; wanting to be safe in life with a pot of cash — and so that means pretty much everyone — will always be at risk of being triggered into such patterns. This is biology. Which means most people who become wisdom teachers are at the constant risk of being profoundly inappropriate, sexually tacky, power-crazed and financially duplicitous. It goes with being human.
Thus, teaching a pupil about the necessity of spiritual discipline with meditation, which is essential in this age of instant download entitlement, can be hijacked by the Protector and become abuse. Teaching about how important it is to find folk that support our growth, rather than hold is in our old patterns, can become cultic advice to split from our family. Open-hearted requests for donations to our purpose projects, and so pay the bills, can become requests to sign over life savings. Insights into how to be free of sexual hangups, to enjoy the natural and gorgeous embodied experience of intimate love, can easily become a drug-fuelled sex orgy. Well, apparently.
If a community is hierarchical, with rules that must be taken uncritically (rather than principles to be interpreted anew by each person as they live them) and if people in that community assume or are assigned roles with graded levels of power (those… with the true teachings / there at the start / signing the checks / have the trust of the guru) it generates a space where abuse can thrive. Power to heal and liberate can be as intoxicating as power to imprison, tax, or regulate others. It must be consciously seen as such. When people project their neurotic need for a saviour / divinity / master onto a teacher, the power can reshape them and disconnect them from the flow of humanity — and the empathy and compassion that runs in rivulets through their bodies when they are, to quote Sufi mystic Al-Ghazali, one drop that lives and dies in the river.
Given the trappings of power, and the evolutionary design of the Protector to grab onto it to feel safe, I believe that it is essential that every teacher surrounds themselves with friends, lovers — and above all peers — who do not drink their Kool Aid (or at least are not addicted to it); are delighted to burst their bubbles (lovingly, in service); and can elegantly coach them on their blindspots to become ever more purposeful. If those peers limit the teacher’s transformational power — for example, by relating to the teacher as their past patterning or by cynically bringing them down as a power play — then that can be an invitation for transformation in their relational fields as well. New peers can be sought that see the teacher as their transformational teaching wholeness (as well as their fragile, vulnerable humanity). The same is true of any disruptive entrepreneur too. Every disruptor needs a little bit of a “reality distortion bubble” to pull people into a new transformative vision. But if they don’t have trusted compadres who can burst the bubble when hubris takes over, fiascos like Fyre Festival are the result.
If a wisdom teacher, of all people, can’t then laugh at how their Protector has taken control of the ship, and let the patterning go quickly as they transform it in real-time with presence, then they are clearly hooked on their own supply. Time to stop teaching and start learning again. The Protector is in command: the Connector must come back in to heal, transform, and start over with what the Buddhist call “beginner’s mind”. The true master is a perpetual pupil as life, and so consciousness, is always dynamic. If a teacher is checking Medium essays for claps, desiring people to use their brand over their birth name, or quoting Watkin’s annual list of the “100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People” then the Protector is on the prowl and needs a spot of coaching (and hugging). For me, a combination of a loving and independently-minded wife, two smart and on their game kids, and a global network of fellow teachers and purpose-driven entrepreneurs keeps my hubris well in check… whilst also supporting that chutzpah to keep going out into a system that resists transformation to do my purpose-work.
On reflection, in many ways I was lucky because my journey to this work came through crushing shyness and lack of confidence. My big wound was neurosis: not loving myself enough and caring too much about other people liking/loving me. With neuroses, the Protector turns inward with anger and self-blame. Bullied and excluded, it took me years to think I could teach anything, let alone life-changing wisdom and critical insights on transformation. Plus, being a Brit, I was always profoundly cynical of most of the New Age scene and the gurus that haunt it. Trained in science and philosophy at Cambridge Uni, I liked to call bullshit on anyone who said that they had “the answer” and/or spewed out mystical half-truths and conspiracy theories. I still do. That includes teasing myself for being any kind of non-guru. Clearly, my path to teaching wisdom required me to heal this wounding enough to get on stage and share my heart out. Yet a part of me still can’t believe the balls I have on me to go out there and do it. I am daily checking myself before I wreck myself. And if I don’t, my fam will happily do it for me.
In fact, as a consequence of my upbringing, nationality, education, and patterning, I have a found it really challenging to step into any form of guru role. I’m allergic to it. Book publishers, TV execs, and podcast interviewers have expected me to: it’s what sells a lot of books and gets people to watch the experts on TV after all. But I have constantly told them I won’t do it. Unsurprisingly, relatively modest book sales have followed: apparently there are less readers out there who like to be told that their enlightenment and transformation will probably takes years not days; and that crystals and unicorns aren’t (necessarily) a one-stop-shop to awakening.
More challengingly, many program participants actively want me to become their guru. This has been a doozie because I have discovered that one does indeed have to step into a position of power (power to inspire, not power over) to have any impact at all from a stage or in a coaching relationship. We need to use what Freudians call “transference” to do, and amplify, the transformational work. We need to harness a bit of power that comes from being a role model (of some kind) to create the conditions for others to find their own way to enlightenment and peace. It is easy to start believing that we are the one’s doing the healing or transmitting the awakening. But all we are doing is tapping into our Connector to call the client’s/pupil’s Connector into heightened awareness and transformative action.
Traditionally, the therapist helps clients heal ruptures in their own relational fields by playing the role, even if briefly and subtly, of someone the patient has “baggage” with. This can be very confusing if the therapist/coach/healer is not utterly rooted in their own sense of self, purpose, and humility. Professional therapists have “supervision” — checking in with a senior therapist once a week — to stop the therapist acting out their own “counter-transference”: falling love with / fucking / abusing their clients. So if a person is going to ride the plains of the unregulated wild (wild) West of wisdom teaching, coaching, and transformation it is essential that they surround ourselves not with people stuck in a “fawning” protective pattern (wanting to be loved or find a rescuer) but those who love us and can act as peer-supervisors: they see us as awesome yet deeply flawed human beings.
Above all, a wisdom teacher must wield power derived from what I call the Connector — the wise guru and inner shaman we all have inside — not by the Protector. The Protector will quickly take the transference and turn it into opportunities for adulation and blow jobs. The Connector, on the other hand, knows that once a teacher has done all they can to support, coach, inspire, and help integrate awakening and/or transformation, they should ask the “students” or “client” to move on. Once someone has learnt what they can from a teacher, they must send them along to their next teacher (or just go practice what they have learnt for a few years in everyday life). They should have no acolytes ever, least of all those who cover up their messes from the public, attack critics in workshop and online, and act as apologists for any abuses. Above all they must never form an (abusive or neglectful) parent and (traumatized) child dynamic with the pupil. This relationship will disable, disempower, and diminish everyone in the system. So the teacher must refuse sycophancy of all kinds: actively and compassionately.
Whilst neuroses “create problems for no-one but their owners”, there is another entire class of psychological challenges called “personality disorders” which create problems for everyone but their owners. Without being a medical doctor of any kind (although I did complete a good few years of med school), I have a wildish conjecture that many gurus have tricksy personality disorders. They are hard to spot at first and most members of the public don’t really know what they are. People with personality disorders can seem the real deal: they can be massively charismatic, intoxicatingly intense, and eloquent with their spiritual insights. So its easy to get hooked into their drama (for there is always drama with these folk). When we are hurting ourselves, drama (manifesting as, say, free love, ecstatic revelry, community conflicts, and utopia building) can see very attractive.
However, people with Personality Disorders are often utterly unable to own their own patterning or hear the feedback of others as anything other than unenlightened gumpf. They might claim that any push back on their patterns, abusive or neglectful, is because the person pushing back is spiritually less mature than they are; doesn’t get the “truth” of non-duality; or still conditioned by societal morality. As psychologist Dr John Reid says: “They provide justification for refusing to accept blame or responsibility for their actions, and will almost certainly refuse help.” They do not believe they have any shadow (if they ever did ). Their Protectors are wisdom talking— but cannot listen to anyone’s feedback on their blindspots around wisdom walking.
The system as a whole then becomes disturbed away from mutual thriving and towards mutual suffering. Otherwise smart and sensible people get caught in their tractor-beams of charismatic power, becoming acolytes who enact their own often neurotic protective patterning to “enable” the gurus. Personality Disorder patterns can easily hook in neurotic patterning and exploit them, like malware in a silicon circuit: because the neurotic always things “its me, not them”.
“When our teacher kept us waiting, failed to meditate, and was extravagant with money, we ignored it or explained it away as a teaching. A cadre of well-organized subordinates picked up the pieces… This “enabling,” as alcoholism counselors call it, allowed damaging behavior to continue and grow. It insulated our teacher from the consequences of his actions and deprived him of the chance to learn from his mistakes. The process damaged us as well: we habitually denied what was in front of our faces, felt powerless, and lost touch with our inner experience.” Katy Butler, 1990
In my view, a wisdom teacher must have a sufficiently healed heart — from years of deep and committed inner work — to have anything worth teaching in the first place. This means not just doing spiritual practice and blissing out in the oneness (whether with aya or dance, meditation or toad venom) but integrating that experience into everyday life with the rigorous transformation of gnarly psychological trauma. Only then can we dissolve our edgy protective patterning and “repattern” ourselves to become who we were always meant to be: a purpose-driven leader / entrepreneur / wisdom teacher. Purpose is, for me, love-in-action: so it can only shine through without being hijacked when we have cleared and cleaned enough of the trauma that distorts it.
No matter how much “crazy wisdom” they profess to have, teachers must have real integrity and old-fashioned morality: they pay money back if its owed; they show up on time to meetings, always respecting others time as much as their own; they don’t cheat on their partners; polyamory is consciously consensual in all parties (with no-one wishing they were in a committed monogamy); they can be relied upon to change diapers, be present for their child’s bathtime, and help with school homework on a daily basis; they are transparent about their business dealings and happy to explain all and any profits; and they are ready to own their contribution to anyone’s upset: in other words, the sort of people you would leave your children with. They have to be congruent: their actions and emotions aligning with their wise words and wonderful philosophies. And they must know deep down that whilst they package up and share their teachings, they don’t “own” them and they are never a complete system that has no fragilities.
I take to heart the Jewish mystical saying: don’t take up too much space but don’t take up too little either. Suffering is everywhere. People are yearning for support, for inspiration, and for guidance. If we have something to alleviate the suffering, after years and years of our own humbling stumbling, then our dharma is to offer it to others as a teacher. Nothing else can suffice. However we must never get drunk on our own fumes, always knowing we are always going to be vulnerable and deeply flawed beings who have a Protector ready to hijack anything we do, no matter how heartfelt, and turn into into something that hurts others. Hurt hearts, hurt hearts. When it’s a wisdom teacher, it is truly tainted love.
What I have observed is that many gurus who have grown up in monastic communities, been supported by large organizations, and have not love, lost, and loved again in the school of life, are unlikely to have done much of this proper psychological trauma-healing and integration. Maybe they haven’t had to return, chomping humble pie, to a lover to apologize after a major slip. They probably haven’t had to pick themselves up after being sacked, or going bankrupt, and start over having fully learnt from the fail. They may not have turned to their parents, time and time again, to rebuild connection after years of family pain. They are unlikely to have been awake all night attempting to process their upset with their kids.
Perhaps it’s no accident then, that so many other-worldly monks and gurus have been caught doing such sordid this-worldly acts with their students. Their patterning has not been burnished in the fire of everyday disappointments. It’s a recipe for disaster. As journalist and Buddhist Katy Butler puts it in Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America: This stuff happens in part because of “[a]n unhealthy marriage of Asian hierarchy and American license that distorts the teacher-disciple relationship.” Old-world, medieval, hierarchies are so embedded in both West and East and they lock us into permanent disempowerment and diminishment. No genuine teacher of wisdom, who has embodied that wisdom as love glowing in their hearts and guts, can believe in a dominative hierarchy instead of a generative one. Generative hierarchies use power for the liberation of all, emanating from hearts that are purified in compassion, gratitude, and humility.
“Any spiritual teacher who is invested in your growth and empowerment will inspire and guide you to look inward and listen to your own wisdom. A true teacher never allows anyone to worship them. This act is disempowering and breeds dangerous codependency.” Alison McAulay
As someone who blends wisdom teaching with transformational innovation expertise, I have come to realize that the issues of guru abuse are symptoms of “fails” in the the teacher-pupil paradigm; and guru-disciple business model that underpins it. The next Buddha must be the sangha, or community. Not an individual but a network. Not a guru but a group. Not another Christ but a Circle. The teacher, facilitator or space-holder creates the conditions by which others within the group or circle can heal ruptures in their relational fields with their peers. This is what we do in both our leadership and personal transformation workshops. We share the wisdom and thinking, we teach people tools and practices, and then they work with their peers to do the inner work together. We then use meditation, music, movement, and more to help people integrate their realizations and revelations into their body and embed them into life.
As disruptors, we’ve even gone one further to develop an entirely plug-and-play toolkit for peer-to-peer leadership coaching in companies and peer-to-peer transformational coaching for individuals. These toolkits, and soon(ish) software, were specifically and carefully designed to balance the power of the teacher and student within us all. Users leverage their inherent Connector’s power to coach and guide other to freedom and innovation — but never get lost up their own wazoo. Whether people have enlightened friends and family or not, wisely-designed peer-to-peer system allow everyone to work with their peers to free themselves from old patterns and embed new repatterns into their leadership styles and love lives.
The network or circle — complete with peer-powered transformation— is the “antidote for, or the completion of, hierarchy” (to quote my peer coach/teacher Scott Vineberg): it flattens out command and control urges, sending power to the edges where it then empowers everyone to switch on and step up with their own transformations. Those in vertical positions atop pyramid, whether CEOs or gurus, have to give up power to the people (whilst still being confident yet humble leaders). This mass empowerment is why I got interested in peer-to-peer models in the first place; and why I set up my first business in the dot com days of the late 90s. The internet rewires the world in its own image of a network. Process, practices, and places become the routes to transformation rather than reliance on charismatic people.
“A move away from the guru/student parent/child dynamic is a necessary and compassionate act towards all inclined to enquire into deeper questions — but especially those that teach. To expose a guru is to love a guru.” Will Pye
In a transformational network / group / circle / community, many people have some of the truth. They can, and must, share it with others. This is their purpose calling them to act. To be of service they teach with love about love. They can even be paid for it. After all, those diapers don’t pay for themselves. They amplify the potentiality for the wholeness of those they serve. But true wisdom teachers of the 21st Century don’t ever seek to rise up to the top of the out-dated pyramid of hierarchy (literally, “rule by the priests”) or seek to sit upon the apex pontificating to subordinates and preaching to acolytes. Sure they teach. Sure they write. Sure they send out Youtube videos and podcast interviews. But they never take their mission too seriously even as they know its the most important thing on the planet. They walk the Middle Way between nihilism and absolutism, between hubris and humility, between chutzpah and chockmah: modern-day bodhisattvas vowed to spread the love… without the need for big paybacks in Rolls Royces, Youtube likes, or adulating crowds.
This may mean we teachers do sit atop a footstool from time to time: just above others to be seen and heard fully. Otherwise people won’t get much value from us. But we never sit atop a pedestal (nor a fancy throne), no matter how tempting it may be to the Protector within us all. For the Connector within, the One that actually does the real teaching, is always a learner: ready to jettison the footstool in a heartbeat, handing it off to a peer, as we melt back into the community from whence we came. The Atman/Brahman within, the wisdom teacher we all have inside, is a node in the network of humanity and all life. Anyone can call anybody out on anything (patterns, amorality, lack of integrity) at anytime (with respect and responsibility). There are no disciples to abuse. There are no acolytes to enable us. There are no gurus to break bad.
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